November 9, 2006

Bradley M. Kuhn's Letter to the FOSS Development Community Regarding Microsoft's Patent Promise

Last Thursday, Novell and Microsoft announced a new collaborative effort involving both licensing and technology. The Software Freedom Law Center has been following the situation, and as its CTO, I've held a particular interest in how it will impact Free Software developers. One result of the agreement, Microsoft's patent pledge to developers, has received significant interest from the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) development community.

A careful examination of Microsoft's Patent Pledge for Non-Compensated Developers reveals that it has little value. The patent covenant only applies to software that you develop at home and keep for yourself; the promises don't extend to others when you distribute. You cannot pass the rights to your downstream recipients, even to the maintainers of larger projects on which your contribution is built.

Further, to qualify for the pledge, a developer must remain unpaid for her work. Experience has shown that many FOSS developers eventually expand their work into for-profit consulting. Others are hired by companies that allow or encourage Free Software development on company time. In either situation, Microsoft's patent pledge is voided for that developer.

Even if the patent pledge were to have some use aside from these problems, our community simply could not rely on it, since Microsoft has explicitly reserved the right to change its terms at any time in the future. A developer relying on the pledge could wake up any day to find it revoked. She'd have to cease development on her non-commercial and (mostly) non-distributable modifications that were previously subject to the covenant.

In short, the pledge applies precariously to developers who work in a vacuum: those who write original software in their spare time, receive no payment for it, and do not distribute it to anyone under the GNU GPL. It's worse than useless, as this empty promise can create a false sense of security. Don't be confused by the illusion of a truce; developers are no safer from Microsoft patents now than they were before. Instead, Microsoft has used this patent pledge to indicate that, in their view, the only good Free Software developer is an isolated, uncompensated, unimportant Free Software developer.

by Bradley M. Kuhn, Chief Technology Officer, Software Freedom Law Center

Bradley M. Kuhn has served as CTO of SFLC since its inception. He previously served as the Executive Director of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), and has contributed to many Free Software development projects.